Final Word

Zuma not taxed for wasting/stealing ‘our taxes’?

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President Zuma will not be taxed for at best wasting, or at worst stealing, ‘our taxes’ if he is allowed to get away scot-free after using taxpayers’ money on the upgrades at his Nkandla residence.

The phenomenon of paying tax is as old as civilisation itself, although the modern word for it is relatively new, having first been recording in English during the fourteenth century.

From China, which has one of the written records going back furthest, we know that taxes were raised there as far back as 3 000 years ago. From the book of Genesis in the Bible we also know that in Egypt 20% of all crops harvested had to go to the Pharaohs.

In Ancient Greece city states also levied taxes to pay for the never-ending wars between them, and they imposed a poll tax on foreigners. A one percent ‘sales tax’ dates back to Julius Caesar’s Rome.

The word ‘tax’, in one sense of the word as we know it today, also comes via the Old French word taxer from the Latin taxare, meaning to assess or appraise. So, ‘taxation’ was at first about the process of deciding how much you were due to pay rather than the sum of money itself – the sense of which has survived to this day in what happens for example to an attorney’s account at the end of court cases.

And to talk of a ‘tax assessment’, is in a sense also a tautology.

Before the word ‘tax’ was available in English, the word ‘task’, also from Old French, was used and retained over time as meaning an obligation or responsibility. 

‘Tax’, in the more general sense of the word as it is used today and ‘task’ became used alongside each other from the 14th century with ‘tax’ more specifically being used to refer to the payment of money and ‘task’ to obligations like supplying labour or military service.

Enter ‘scot’

The ‘scot’ in ‘scot-free’ has nothing to do with the legendary ‘frugality’ of the Scottish nation. Neither is the American folklore account that it comes from the battle to become a free citizen by American slave Dred Scott during the first half of the 19th century, the correct explanation.

The ‘scot’ of ‘scot-free’ has everything to do with taxation and arrived in English from Scandinavia and its roots date back to the 10th century.

It is related to the noun ‘shot’ (associated with the verb ‘shoot’), influenced by cognate words in Scandinavian languages. The modern Scandinavian equivalents are Swedish and Norwegian skatt, Danish skat, and Icelandic skattur, meaning ‘tax’.

The word migrated to Britain and mutated into ‘scot’ as the name of a redistributive taxation, levied as early as the 10th century.

‘Scot’ as a term for ‘tax’ has been used since then in various forms – ‘Church scot’, ‘Rome scot’, ‘Soul scot’ and so on. Whatever the tax, the phrase ‘getting off scot free’ originally simply referred to not paying one’s taxes but has since broadened its meaning to include escaping punishment or consequences for having done something wrong or dodging an obligation.

The first reference in print to ‘scot free’ is in a 13th century copy of the Writ of Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066.

The use of the figurative version of the phrase dates back to at least the 16th century as recorded in the 1567 publication of John Maplet’s Green Forest.

Final word on tax

That we at the moment are experiencing plenty of political spin around how President Zuma has been dealing with tax money, and getting of scot-free, is also nothing new.

In a ‘spin’ exercise to combat the unpopularity of taxes there were attempts in history dating back to at least the late 17th century England to rename it to ‘duties’. In the end it became just another form of tax, without any improvement in popularity.

And if one considers all the duties that apply in our day and age, one can be pardoned for thinking there has been a return to the days of Czar Peter of Russia who was notorious for taxing everything, from beards, boots, beehives, candles, nuts, hats, horses and water to even chimneys in one of the coldest countries of the world.

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